How to guarantee the reading guarantee

Students entering third grade a year from now (this year’s second graders) will be allowed to advance to fourth grade only if they achieve a minimum score on the state’s third-grade reading assessment. The third-grade reading guarantee applies to all public schools — including charter schools — and seeks to ensure that all students are prepared for the academic challenges of fourth grade and beyond.

Reading is the foundation for all learning, and research shows that not learning to read well in the early grades affects students in later years. The Annie E. Casey Foundation reports that students who aren’t proficient in reading by third grade are four times more likely to leave high school without a diploma than students who can read at grade level.

Other states have enacted third-reading guarantees, Florida being the most notable example. The Sunshine State has had a guarantee in place for a decade, and the research on its impact is positive. In a study released earlier this year, Marcus Winters of the Manhattan Institute found that the benefits of Florida’s remediation were still apparent and substantial through seventh grade (which was as far as the data could be tracked).

A new Brookings Institution paper by Martin West of Harvard confirms these findings and shows that retaining students in the third grade who aren’t proficient in reading has long-term benefits for students, and little in terms of downsides for student achievement.

Ohio’s new law has ample critics, from those who believe it takes too much decision-making power out of the hands of local educators and parents to those who see an “unfunded mandate” on local schools. But critics and supporters of the policy alike should all agree on this point: The policy can benefit kids, but only if the schools and state do things differently.

Here are three things that must change.

First, districts must take seriously the law’s requirement that they offer additional reading support to K-3 students who are identified as reading below grade level. High-quality, student-centered, intensive intervention — especially for first and second graders — should help more students read on grade level by the end of third grade and prevent mandatory retentions. Similarly, districts should consider retaining students earlier than third grade if they cannot read.

Second, districts should make prudent use of the law’s good-cause exceptions to advance students to fourth grade. Certain limited-English-proficient students and students with disabilities will be allowed to advance regardless of their performance on the state test, as will students who were previously held back in K-3.

More important, the law allows the district to prove, with an assessment other than the state test, that a student is ready for fourth grade. This provision retains some power for local educators to have a say in determining which of their students are ready to move on, and which are not.

Third, schools must engage parents early in the reading-intervention process, well before third grade. Doing so would encourage parents to be partners in their children’s reading development — potentially lessening the need for future intervention — and would prevent parents from being surprised come third grade that their child cannot read and is being held back.

Program implementation should be monitored by the state Department of Education and research should be conducted on the future academic performance of students who are retained and those who are not. The state legislature should be willing to adjust the law as warranted based on these findings and district feedback.

But the state should not be quick to scuttle the policy. In Florida, it took several years before positive results were seen as students, schools and parents adjusted to the new requirements.

Likewise, the state should periodically revisit whether it should provide additional support via funding, professional development, or other resources to help schools serve struggling readers. As part of the new policy, the legislature provided a small amount of grant funding to help schools develop early literacy supports. Lawmakers must be willing to consider increasing this funding or providing other assistance to districts so that the law works as intended.

Ohio’s third-grade reading guarantee can and should have a positive impact on students. But it will require the ongoing cooperation and serious effort of local educators, state education leaders and state lawmakers alike to ensure that is the case. Starting now will make it more likely the policy will be effective in 2013 and beyond.

This op-ed originally appeared in the August 24 Akron Beacon-Journal.

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